SAN MARTIN, Calif. – Each round, each hole, each shot executed by the 51st-ranked player in the world is scrutinized more closely than ever as he embarks on yet another comeback here in a small town, at a small event, vastly different from the stages Tiger Woods dominated for so many years.
Take the 5-iron he hit at CordeValle Golf Club's eighth hole, from roughly 200 yards, to about eight feet. That was the old Tiger Woods, all right. As he put it, "It felt good."
Or the laser-like approach at the 196-yard, par-3 16th, to less than 4 feet, that resulted in his third straight birdie. The fans, many chanting "Let's go, Tiger," or "You're still the best," or other encouraging words, sensed something was happening – something that used to happen routinely.
They were wrong. As has been the case so often these last two years, any flashes of magic were just that, flashes, interspersed with the errors that kept Woods back in the pack on Day 2 of the Frys.com Open and a work that remains very much in progress.
On Thursday, the problem was the blade. He couldn't make a thing, missing three putts within 6 feet, leading to a disappointing 2-over 73.
On Friday, the putter was much more proficient, and the irons were precise. The problem this time was the driver. He went left more often than Nancy Pelosi, hitting only six fairways.
"I got into my old posture," Woods explained after recording a 3-under 68, which put him seven strokes behind leader Paul Casey, with much of the field forced to finish their second rounds on Saturday after fog had delayed the start of play by more than two hours. "The way I'm rotating through the ball now, that ball is going to go left. I just need to get better posture, and when I do, I can hit a fade or a draw."
The errant shots also resulted in something else quite familiar to anybody who has watched him play the last two decades – frustration.
"Tiger Woods," he uttered to himself after pulling another drive on No. 17. One hole later, he shortened his disgust to simply "Tiger." He walked a few feet from the tee, staring at the ground for the longest time. The ball, despite nine people looking for it, never was found, leading to the first of two consecutive bogeys. Any momentum Woods had generated with those three birdies in a row was gone.
Yet, not surprisingly, he remains a believer, and why shouldn't he? You don't win 14 majors by having a self-esteem issue, do you?
He was especially gratified to see the putting cooperate, for a change.
"I hit one bad putt today, and that was it," he said. "Every other putt was on line. I hit my lines all day."
The best indication of his mindset, though, came when he was asked how crucial it may have been for him to avoid missing two cuts in a row, which had been a very real possibility entering the day.
Woods, who missed the cut at the PGA Championship in August, did not show any insecurities. He never does.
"I don't like missing cuts, period," he said. "If I miss the cut, that means you can't win the tournament on the weekend. I've got a shot at it this weekend."
However he plays, every shot he hits will undergo the same level of examination. Woods has not won a tournament anywhere in nearly two years, a drought of the kind of proportion that would have seemed ludicrous before he backed into the famous hydrant.
Conversely, with every birdie, there will be plenty of applause, his supporters convinced that his redemption – at least on the golf course – is imminent.
With every bogey, however, there will be plenty of doubters. Prior to his 68, Woods had failed to break 70 in six straight rounds dating back to the first round at Firestone. Of his 23 rounds in 2011, only eight have been in the 60s, and no matter how satisfied he might be at various aspects of his game, the only thing that will persuade most observers is if he were to put up low scores, lots of them.
Woods' mere participation in this event, which is part of the PGA Tour's Fall Series, is a sign of how much he needs more playing time, especially with the Presidents Cup only a month away.
One believer at CordeValle is former Stanford football coach Ty Willingham, who followed Woods for a significant portion of Friday's round.
"He is still an amazing athlete," said Willingham, who knew Woods when he was a student in the mid-1990s. "Everyone can see these flashes. It's just a matter of putting everything together."
It certainly is.
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